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The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss

by Patty DannTrumpeter Books; $18

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Patty Dann had her first inkling of trouble when her husband, Willem, started having difficulty understanding simple words. The first time, it was “car seat.” A few days later, when Willem asked Patty for “an ink pen” and she gave him a ballpoint, he screamed at her. An MRI confirmed her fears about his irrational behavior: Willem had terminal brain cancer.

In The Goldfish Went on Vacation, Dann writes about her deep sorrow and what she did to help Jake, their then-three-year-old son, through Willem’s illness. In spare, tender chapters, she deftly describes her pain—and Jake’s: “When Willem got sick, Jake began bandaging everything in sight...all his toy cars and trucks. One morning, when Willem was sound asleep, he put Band-Aids all over our wooden bed frame.”

The Goldfish Went on Vacation—the title refers to the way one of Dann’s acquaintances sidestepped explaining death to a child—is not about adoption per se, but it offers a window into how one adoptive family, with the help of a therapist, dealt with grieving. The book’s strength lies in its emotional honesty, rendered beautifully by Dann, author of the memoir The Baby Boat (Hyperion), about adopting Jake from Lithuania.

After months of watching Willem suffer, Dann and Jake find that his death brings a feeling of calm acceptance. One day, a month after Willem’s death, Dann peeked in as Jake’s therapy session was wrapping up. “There was an ornate, but perfectly arranged traffic jam stretching the length of the room, all the cars facing front,” writes Dann. “‘For months,’ Jake’s therapist said, quietly, ‘he has been making car crashes, and now it’s all in order.’” Dann replies: “I feel that way, too.”

Reviewed by Renée Olson, an editor and an adoptive mom.

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